The adjudicator was the most irritating person Faith had ever come across, and mage society was not exactly short on those. He was from neither Tradition, which was to be expected, but he didn’t bother to introduce himself, and actually cut Sophia off when she attempted to do so. He looked like a teenager, and had the attitude to match, but one look into his watering, myopic eyes was enough to put the impression to rest. He was dressed like a dandy from the 1890s, with meticulous historical accuracy, except everything was unrelieved black. His ebony cane was a lot similar to Madame Vera’s, but where her grip was shaped like a silver serpent’s head, his was a faceted crystal pommel that always reflected the light from one angle or another–a wizard staff if there ever was one, even to mundane eyes.
The excitement in the concert hall was almost palpable. The three musicians on stage had finished tuning up; all that remained was for the last two of the group to arrive and the performance to begin.
Sarah shifted in her seat; Lord Bowers’ box, though modest, was a lot roomier and more comfortable than the circle seats, but she couldn’t shake a sense of unease that had been growing the longer she spent in the hall, and had little, by now, to do with having to pretend to be his lordship’s date for the evening.
‘Madame Vera and I have conferred on the need for suitable consequences for yesterday’s imbroglio,’ started Sophia, ‘with a view of creating a teaching experience, rather than a mere punishment.’
‘Imbroglio’ was a rather extreme term for the incident, but that was Sophia’s style. There had just been a bit of an altercation between Faith and Anna in the Chantry library, which escalated into a bit of a tussle, which resulted in two books needing new bindings and an urn of Tass getting broken. All right, there was only a little of it left at the bottom, but… okay, perhaps Sophia did have a point.
When Ian finally made it home–if the tiny, bare studio on the 23rd floor of the employee quarters could be called that–Christina had fallen asleep on the sofa, with her ancient, battered copy of The Lady and the Unicorn resting on her bump. Still, she opened her eyes at the sound of the door closing, quiet as he tried to make it. ‘I’m not going to state the obvious,’ she said.
‘I know. I’m sorry. Meeting after regular hours. How are you feeling? Up for some supper?’
Christina sat up slowly and the book slid to the floor. ‘There’s soup and meatballs in the chiller, but I’m not sure how much would stay down if I tried…’
‘We’ll have to get you some proper treatment, then.’ Keeping his tone and his face neutral was going to be a challenge.
Faith sat on the bench before the painting, sketchpad in her lap, not even pretending to work any longer. This was the most frustrating task Sophia had assigned her so far: study that sodding painting and find in it the key to unlock the next module they were going to work on. So far, in spite of spending the entire afternoon at the museum–which was currently half an hour from closing–Faith had drawn a total blank.
She had attempted to sketch it, so she could bring a copy home to study at her leisure, since photographing was not allowed… only to find out that, despite the hands-on involvement, she couldn’t concentrate on it. It had to be the original.
The History Museum was housed in a dainty pavilion of a neoclassical building, quite unlike the more imposing ones along the adjacent streets, at the back of an equally bijou square, complete with mounted bronze statue of some revolutionary general or other. The inside, however, held an intensity that Rose was totally unprepared for. All walls were painted gallery-red, against which the plaster cornices around the ceilings and windows gleamed perfectly white. The walls themselves were covered with paintings in heavy carved gilt frames, mostly portraits of the people who had fought and won the War of Independence, and then got the fledgling state to its figurative feet–formidable-looking men in white pleated skirts and embroidered waistcoats and ornate fezzes, with bristling moustaches and farouche expressions, and some in voluminous black cassocks or brocade vestments and wizard-grade beards. Underneath the paintings there was no end of glass cases holding what little they had left behind to be bequeathed to the state–weapons and letters and state documents with the scrawled signatures of those barely literate. Overwhelming didn’t even begin to describe it.
By contrast, the amphitheatrical room where the Parliament had met for over a century, where all those decisions immortalised in the displayed documents had been made, was light and airy, dust motes dancing in the sunlight slanting in through the high windows above the gallery. Rose smiled to herself, took a seat in one of the back rows, closed her eyes and concentrated. The message she was expecting would come through very soon.
The comm crackled into life five minutes before the night shift was due to come in, after a couple of hours so uneventful that Shara had almost nodded off at her station. ‘Base Control, this is Fury Three requesting permission to dock. ETA eight minutes.’
Shara smiled and adjusted her headset. ‘Copy that, Fury Three. You’re late. Over two days, to be exact.’
‘Mea culpa, Lieutenant. We didn’t manage to reach the spaceport before snow grounded all transports. So much snow, you would have loved it.’
‘You should have offered to shovel it, Sergeant. It would have earned you priority takeoff status,’ replied Shara, not bothering to stifle a chuckle. The man at the other end chuckled as well.
‘I still managed to bring you something, though. But you can’t have it yet. Not for another… three weeks, right?’
Shara groaned. ‘You’re telling me you brought booze while I can’t have any?’
‘I can’t keep secrets from you, plus I trust you. Shara Bey, lush by nature, teetotaler by iron discipline.’
‘Kes Dameron, unless you have decided you don’t care to live to meet your son, you will get off the comm right now and proceed to hangar bay seven, because Force help you if you fail to make your ETA again!’